Last week I had the pleasure of hosting a retreat with a circle of beautiful women in one of the most beautiful locations I’ve ever worked. The retreat centre was so beautiful and luxurious, in fact, that it wouldn’t have surprised me to see Oprah emerge from a room raving about her new favourite things.
The women who’d flown me to Costa Rica for this retreat were warm, friendly, wise and strong. They clearly loved each other deeply and were willing to support each other through thick and thin. They’d been a small community for seven years already, meeting monthly for personal development conversations and yearly for a retreat with a facilitator/teacher like me. They knew each other’s stories, and had supported each other through death, divorce, family illness and everything in between. One night, when we sat together over drinks and a delicious meal, they each took turns describing the beauty and strength they saw in each other and it was one of the most moving things I’ve ever witnessed.
When things are too beautiful though, there’s often a shadow lurking just beneath the surface.
When I say there was a “shadow”, I’m not talking about an ugly meanness or pettiness that was being masked by so much kindness and love. No – I saw nothing that would suggest that their kindness and love for each other was anything other than genuine.
The shadow was quite different from that. What was there beneath the surface (and which was acknowledged by the group toward the end of the first day) was a tendency they had to hold a SAFE space which sometimes kept them from being BRAVE.
Because they cared so much for each other and were accepting and supportive of each other’s choices and paths through life, they were reluctant to ask each other hard questions or challenge unhealthy patterns when they saw them. They all wanted their community space to feel safe, but that safety was getting in their way of their growth and perhaps even their healing.
(The added challenge, from my limited cultural perspective, is that, much like Canadians, Costa Ricans tend to err on the side of politeness. But politeness as a cultural value is often a way of masking the complexity that’s underneath.)
When a space is too safe and we’ve become comfortable in that safety, we don’t want to challenge it, we don’t want to say anything that will rock the boat, and we don’t want to offend anyone else lest they abandon us. One of the results is that we become reluctant to be too vulnerable because our shadows might scare the other people away. We choose comfort over courage and we chase away or silence anyone who threatens that comfort.
It wasn’t that these women wanted to be stuck in comfort. On the contrary – they are all brave and bold women who have accomplished remarkable things in their careers and families and they are in this community precisely because they WANT to grow and evolve. Growth does not scare them. Hard work does not scare them. Facing uncomfortable truth does not scare them. Quite the opposite – few groups have been more direct and courageous in ASKING me to help them see the shadow they had trouble seeing for themselves.
What I witnessed was less of a desire to stay safe and more of an entrenched pattern that had become part of their way of co-existing. It was a pattern that was hard to see because they were too close to it. Like a piece of lettuce stuck between your teeth, some things are hard to see without a mirror. They’d brought me to Costa Rica partly because they recognized in me a potential mirror.
Over the course of the second day, once we’d started to shine a light into the shadowy places, these women began to open up and share increasingly vulnerable and painful things – unresolved things, shameful things, trauma, fear, etc.. They also started to ask each other more challenging questions, inviting bravery, growth and new perspectives. In the evening of the second day, the pattern had shifted significantly and they were excited about what was possible with the new language and brave questions I’d offered. That evening’s conversation was vulnerable, openhearted, brave, and deep.
During the course of our last evening together, they asked me to give direct feedback about what I’d witnessed in their group, what things they seemed to be afraid to talk about, where they were stuck, and how they could continue to grow. I was able to speak honestly because I knew these women had the strength to receive what I’d say without defensiveness, as well as the courage to take whatever I offered to heart. They didn’t need me to give them courage (they already had it in spades), they simply needed someone to help them see what was hidden from their view.
What I witnessed among these women is not uncommon among communities, friendships, families, etc. where there is deep care and love. Sometimes we mistake “care” with “letting people stay comfortable in old patterns”. And sometimes we assume that holding space is only about providing safe space where a person feels free of judgement and free of the need to change or grow. Holding space, though, is much more complex than that. (Otherwise I wouldn’t have enough content for an 8 month course.)
Now… I don’t want to give the impression that this is a binary thing – that a space is either safe or brave and that one is better than the other. That’s simply not true. For one thing, there are times when we need to be held in safety without any pressure to change our behaviour or our choices. Especially when healing from trauma or when deep in new grief, safety is paramount and should not be compromised.
ALSO a feeling of safety is usually a first step in establishing enough trust so that we CAN step into bravery. A loving community like these women have provides the solid ground from which we can leap into courage.
BUT at some point safety is not enough and sometimes it even creates a barrier to our growth. As I’ve said before, safety can become a trap and a crutch. In fact some people who cling to their own safety do harm to others in the process. (For example, in race relations or gender conversations when the dominant people in the room demand a “safe space” what they’re really asking for is allowances for their fragility. That fragility, left unchallenged, can cause great harm to the more marginalized in the room. When I work in those spaces, I make safety for marginalized people a greater priority than safety for those who’ve always assumed the privilege of safety.)
If you find yourself in a community that has become too safe (and perhaps somewhat stagnant), here are some things that might help:
- Check-in about people’s readiness for more bravery. A community that’s thrust into bravery without preparation and/or discernment about their readiness can quickly become fractured beyond repair. Start with a hard conversation, revealing what you believe to be true about an over-reliance on safety, and ask people whether they feel emotionally stable enough to try something different. If most people are comfortable with the way things are, you may need to seek out another community to meet your needs. (Sometimes, on the other hand, when you’re establishing a new community where bravery needs to be built in, transparency around that expectation should be built into the way people are invited in. In my courses, for example, I include an indication of this expectation in the group agreements.)
- Build trust that can support bravery. If we don’t trust the people we’re with, it’s much more difficult to be brave in their presence. Trust-building involves keeping stories confidential, showing up when you promise to show up, being an engaged listener, withholding scorn, and being dependable. To build trust (and, consequently, bravery), people in the community need to be willing to be vulnerable and authentic with each other and to take off their masks so that others feel more safe to take off their masks.
- Invite an outsider to serve as the mirror. One of the things that really impressed me about this group was their openness to hearing what I was witnessing and their genuine desire to be nudged out of their comfort zones. An outsider (especially one who is skilled in community-building, facilitation and truth-telling) can offer a perspective that is nearly impossible to see from the inside. It can feel risky to let someone peer into your group’s shadows, and it can take some investment of time and money, but it can also be transformative. Be discerning, though, in who you invite in and how much you’ll allow yourselves to be disrupted.
- Invite the pink elephant into the room. One of my favourite ways of inviting the shadow to be revealed in a circle (and encouraging more bravery) is to use a pink elephant as a talking piece. (This is something that emerged out of a moment of inspiration and challenge in one of my team retreats and I credit Susan Dupuis for the idea.) When I pull out the pink elephant, I tell people that I have a sense that there’s something beneath the surface that people might be afraid to reveal, and then I pass it around the room and invite anyone who wants to share something to offer it to the group. A talking piece helps to slow down the conversation and keeps people from interjecting while tender things are being spoken.
- Practice asking braver questions. If people have indicated a readiness for brave space, then start by asking braver questions that invite new perspectives and growth. At the end of our time together in Costa Rica, the women had agreed that, when one shares a story that indicates they might be stuck in the safety zone, they’ll ask “are you ready for a brave question?” If the person says yes, they’ll offer something that will invite the person to see their story through a new lens. A brave question might be something like “What might change if you let go of this resentment?” or “How are you trying to protect yourself from pain?” or “Do you believe you’re worthy of more happiness?” (For more brave questions, check out 50 Questions that Could Change Your Life.)
- Take care of each other. Stepping into bravery and vulnerability can leave us feeling tender and raw, and that’s a time when community support is even more necessary. If you are in a transition period with your community/family/partnership/etc., where you’re learning to be more brave, make sure you’re also setting aside extra time for play, self-care, group-care, and laughter. Eat meals together, go for walks in nature together, go dancing – anything that helps you to deepen your bond so that your container is strong enough to hold the bravery.
Not everyone is ready for bravery, and you may have some resistance in your group or family, but when the readiness is there, a brave space can bring transformation and growth that’s far beyond what’s possible in the comfort zone.
Note: Thank you to the women who hired me for this retreat for giving me permission to share it.
Learn lots more about safe space and brave space (and how to hold both) in my online course, Holding Space Practitioner Program.
Sometimes it’s okay to “let them see you sweat.”
I sweat. A LOT. And my face turns beet red when I exert myself, so if you’re ever present when I exercise (which, sadly, isn’t often enough) you won’t be able to miss the evidence of my efforts.
But this post isn’t about physical exertion. Instead, it’s about the kind of sweating (both physical and metaphorical) we do when we’re under stress, when we’re afraid of failing, or when we fear that people might be disappointed in us.
Mostly, it’s about vulnerability and when it’s okay to reveal our flaws, our fear, and our fumbling.
Thanks especially to writers like Brené Brown, lots of people are talking about the value of vulnerability, but what’s sometimes missing from the dialogue is the nuance of WHEN it’s appropriate to be vulnerable, HOW MUCH vulnerability is appropriate, and WITH WHOM it’s okay to be vulnerable.
What if, for example, you’re in charge of keeping people who are more vulnerable than you safe from harm (small children, for example) and you admit that you have no clue how to do so and suddenly they feel even more unsafe than before? Was it wise, in that situation, to show your vulnerability? Probably not. That might be when it’s wiser to put on a brave face and prioritize their needs over your own. As a parent, there have certainly been times when I had to keep my fears and self-doubts to myself (or when I cried behind my bedroom door) because it wasn’t in my children’s best interests to doubt my ability to protect or provide for them. As they’ve gotten older, I’ve increased how much I’ll admit my flaws and fears to them, but in the early days they needed my strength more than my vulnerability.
Or what if, by becoming vulnerable, you’re drawing the attention away from the people who need it more than you do and then your vulnerability becomes a stumbling block rather than a building block? If, for example, you’re working with traumatized or oppressed people and you can’t stop crying about how much the work is impacting you, you’re likely making it about yourself rather than about them. Suddenly those people have to spend their energy caring for you rather than themselves. That’s when it’s best to take your vulnerability somewhere else where people have more capacity to do emotional labour on your behalf.
Or what if you haven’t gained enough trust in the other person or people and you suspect they might further harm you or use your vulnerability against you? Some people are masterful at manipulation and at using other people’s weaknesses to their own advantage (someone who’s trying to sell you an expensive coaching program, for example). Other people may be less intentional about it but still harmful in how they respond to you because of their lack of capacity or self-awareness. With those people, it’s better to withhold your vulnerability rather than put yourself at risk.
Vulnerability, then, is best shared with people who have earned your trust, people who aren’t under too much of their own burden at the time, people who aren’t fully reliant on you for their own safety at the time, and/or people who have enough emotional intelligence and self-awareness to respond in appropriate ways.
Recently, I found myself in a dilemma about whether or not my vulnerability was the best course of action. I was facilitating a three-day workshop on holding space in the Netherlands, and, to be frank, it wasn’t going well. By the end of the first day, I could sense that there was dissatisfaction among participants and I wasn’t sure why. I had started the workshop in much the same way I’ve started many other workshops, and those workshops progressed much more smoothly, so I didn’t understand the source of the problem.
Was it because I was tired, having just spent an intense week in Uganda? Was it the cultural and/or language differences, since this was the first time I was teaching in a place where English isn’t the first language? Was I using language or a teaching style that wasn’t relatable to this audience? Was there some pre-existing conflict among participants that they’d brought with them to this space? Or was it because I’d started with the basics of holding space and many people in the room were already experienced practitioners who wanted higher level training?
One of the things that I sensed was going on (that I picked up from some of the comments coming my way) was that my style of facilitation was falling short of what people had expected of me. There were quite a few experienced facilitators in the room, and most of them had been trained in styles that are different from my own (ie. systemic constellations, for example, which incorporates more movement and less conversation than tends to be my primary style) and I began to feel the scrutiny of their evaluation.
On the morning of the second day, trying to adapt to the style that I sensed they were more comfortable with, I made changes to the process. But that didn’t seem to be sufficient – I got even more feedback during the breaks that indicated the dissatisfaction was growing rather than dissipating. (Sadly, dissatisfaction is contagious and even those who’d seemed happy earlier were now starting to squirm in their seats.) What was especially challenging is that the feedback was often contradictory – one person would come to tell me that they needed more of one thing, while another person would come to me five minutes later to say that they needed more of the exact opposite. It seemed there was no way of meeting all of the expectations in the room, not even if I contorted myself to try to satisfy people.
By lunchtime on the second day, the picture started to become more and more clear to me. There was an expectation in the room that was, quite honestly, impossible for me to live up to, because it was an expectation crafted out of who they THOUGHT I was and not who I REALLY am. A couple of people, in their conversations with me, referred to me as the “Queen of Holding Space”, and it wasn’t reverence I was hearing in their voices but disappointment. These people – because my work has been broadly circulated in certain circles in the Netherlands – had constructed an image of me as a guru who knows all there is to know about holding space and who would walk into the room and wow them immediately with my exquisite ability to hold space.
Unfortunately, I walked into the room fully human, fully flawed, a little jet-lagged, and with a lot that I still need to learn about holding space. I didn’t speak their language (not only the language of their country, but the language of a systemic understanding of the world), I didn’t facilitate in the way that they’d become accustomed, I made mistakes, and the opening check-in circle dragged on too long so the opening pace was slow.
Over lunch, I agonized over what was the right thing to do. Should I just keep trying to adapt my style to find the sweet spot that might satisfy the highest number of people in the room? Or should I simply push through with how I’d planned the workshop and hope that by the end, something of value would be transmitted? Should I hide my fear and flaws in the face of these people who looked up to me and pretend I was oblivious to their dissatisfaction?
OR… should I speak my vulnerability out loud, trust them to have the emotional intelligence to receive it well, and hope that it might help us collectively dive deeper into our learning?
I chose vulnerability. I knew it was a risk and I knew that I might lose some credibility (and people might leave even more dissatisfied than they already were), but it seemed like the only viable option.
I told them that I’d become aware that there was a shadow in the room and that that shadow was a reflection of the way that I was letting people down. (In process work such as this, the shadow refers to “that which is hiding under the surface which is unspoken and therefore potentially destructive”.) I said that I wasn’t interested in the pedestal that people had put me on – that pedestals are lonely, dangerous, and uncomfortable, and that I prefer to be in the circle, alongside them, doing the work in messy and flawed ways and learning shoulder-to-shoulder. I spoke of my imperfections and told them I knew I wouldn’t be able to meet all of the expectations in the room. I promised, though, that I would continue to do my best to offer them what I have learned so far about holding space. I invited them to trust me and to stand by my side as we went deeper into the learning and into brave space together.
My sharing, like everything else I’d done up until that point, was imperfect, and when I was finished, I wasn’t sure what to do next. When I looked around the room, what I thought I saw was a softening and greater acceptance of the imperfection and releasing of the unmet expectations, but I wasn’t sure if I was interpreting it correctly.
Slowly, though, things started to shift, and, in the end, my vulnerability helped us go where we needed to go as a group. It didn’t happen magically (there was still some resistance that afternoon) but gradually the energy in the room shifted. We stepped more deeply into a place of trust, depth, and bravery. Other people began to open up and some spoke to their own wrestling with what had been going on in the room.
The next morning, a couple of moments of inspiration helped to take our learning to an even deeper place. First, I shared a story of how I’d been invited to dance with Ugandan women the week before, how miserably I’d failed at it, but how I recognized that it was in brief moments of my most pure surrender to the music and to those who lead me in the dance when I could most successfully move with the rhythm. “That place of surrender is what brave space is like,” I said. “And today, as we finish up this workshop, I want to invite you into that dance of surrender and trust. I’m asking that you trust the music and that you trust me, as your leader, to know what the rhythm in the room needs to be.” I looked around the room, and what I saw looking back at me were nodding heads and a deeper trust than I’d witnessed up until that point.
The other moment of inspiration was one that I can take no credit for – it came in the form of a piece of camel shit. A participant named Roeland brought a small container that he wanted to add to the collection of items at the centre of the circle (items that represent the people in the circle and that we use as talking pieces). “This is a dried up piece of camel shit,” he said, while people snickered in response. “I picked it up while on a spiritual retreat. At first I thought it was a rock, but when I picked it up, I discovered it had very little weight to it. The lesson in it for me was that my shit is lighter than I expect it to be. I can carry my own shit and it doesn’t feel like the burden I anticipate.”
From that point on, that piece of camel shit became a symbol for the group of what it means to “take responsibility for your own shit”. At one point, it became the talking piece and we all discovered how light it was to “hold our own shit”. But then one person put it down and chose another talking piece because “that’s not my shit and I don’t want to carry it,” she said. We all laughed and realized that some of the deepest learning of the day was coming from the lighthearted way that we could talk about taking responsibility for whatever we brought into the room. It wasn’t lost on us that this was connected to what I’d spoken of earlier – that some of the dissatisfaction and shadow in the room was because we’d each brought our own shit (ie. expectations and fear of letting people down) with us and had projected it onto other people. (This is true for me as well as anyone else. There were moments when I was looking for people to blame rather than recognizing my own part in what was transpiring.)
By the end of that third day, the energy had completely changed, and the workshop ended with some of the warmest hugs and words of appreciation I’d ever received. Several people remarked on how we, as a group, had been through a liminal space journey together – how we’d started with one version of who we were and what we expected, how my vulnerable sharing had helped us let go of that story and those expectations, and how we’d emerged into something new. This is one of the first things I teach in my holding space workshops – that when we hold space, we have to be prepared to hold the complexity of the liminal space.
It’s quite possible that my vulnerability could have backfired and that people might have left the room frustrated and disappointed. (Perhaps some did and I’m not aware of it.) It’s never a guarantee when we take a risk like that. But more often than not, I’ve found that my willingness to be imperfect and authentic, as the leader of that space, is directly correlated with how deep the learning can go.
In retrospect, though, there were a couple of factors that helped the vulnerability land well. For one thing, I let the participants know that they didn’t have to take care of me – that I wasn’t so vulnerable that they had to spend their energy making sure I was okay. Whenever I teach, I have other people that I trust outside of the circle to whom I can send a distress signal (usually via text message) simply to ask them for virtual support. I’m careful not to have the expectation that people who’ve come to learn from me also have to look after my emotional well-being. (Though I do appreciate their concern, I don’t make it their responsibility.)
Secondly, I paired the vulnerability with strength – letting them know that I was still prepared to take responsibility for leadership and for making decisions about what direction the workshop would take. I invited them to trust my sense of the right pace, content, etc.
As in the Buddhist teaching around warriorship, I practiced showing up with a “strong back and soft belly” – prepared to show them my vulnerability while still carrying myself with strength.
In the end, the workshops that take me through the most difficult terrain are usually the ones where I walk away with the most learning. I hope the same is true for those who were there with me. I am forever grateful for their willingness to step into the liminal space with me.
* * * *
Want to learn more about holding space? Check out my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program. The next session starts in January 2019.
Yesterday morning I was in an emotional tailspin. The night before, at the end of a long day of coaching clients, I made a couple of mistakes that were pointed out by people and it put me in a shame spiral. And then, partly because I was already fragile, another person’s actions annoyed me and I landed in an anger spiral that resulted in me saying some words I shouldn’t have.
I could just chalk this up to jet lag and excuse myself for it all by saying that I’m still adjusting to being home and that I jumped into client work too quickly after the intensity of facilitating three retreats and I should have known better than to interact with people who challenge me after a full day of coaching… but that would largely be me letting myself off the hook for bad behaviour. All of those things are true… but there’s also something else for me to consider in this. It’s what I tell my clients all of the time…
My discomfort will not kill me.
Making mistakes won’t kill me. Getting angry won’t kill me. Having to clean up from my mistakes won’t kill me. If anything, those things will make me a little more resilient and help me grow. And I am reminded, once again, that when I insist on self-care and periods of quiet and introspection after doing intense work far from home, it’s not only for my own good, but for the good of those impacted by my moods.
Today I’m not talking to any clients and I’m going to be gentle with myself. And I’m going to make retributions for some of the mistakes I made yesterday. And I’m choosing not to hide the shame bits because there is worthwhile learning in them.
I used to run from discomfort – try to numb myself from it in any way I could. Shut down the anger, eat away the shame, distract myself from the pain, lash out when I needed to blame someone other than me. I was too scared to look inside of it, too scared I’d see only ugliness in the shadows.
I still hide sometimes (hello Netflix, my favourite distraction) but I’m learning, gradually, to stay more present in it, breathe/pray/dance/journal my way through it, until it begins to crack open and I find the gems in the shadows. It takes less time to shift than it used to – I still got a reasonable night’s sleep the night before last, despite the places my spiralling brain wanted to take me. I will survive. I can see my own shadow now without letting it consume me.
Though I might not like it, discomfort is one of my greatest teachers. In fact, I’m not sure if I ever learn anything worthwhile without at least a little discomfort.
Discomfort became fairly central to one of my retreats last week. It’s usually at least somewhat present at all of my retreats (because I encourage people to stretch themselves), but at this one we had an opportunity to go deeper with it than usual.
The retreat was about holding space for others, and each of the retreat participants had been given an assignment that, on the fourth day of the retreat, they would practice holding space for the group. On Saturday, each person signed up for a 45 minute slot when they could host a conversation on a topic that mattered to them, teach us a movement/art/meditation practice that would help us hold space for ourselves, or find some other creative and meaningful way of helping us explore what it means to hold space.
Few people go on retreat and expect to do some of the hosting/teaching themselves, so there was, not surprisingly, some resistance and discomfort. Some handled it with humour, some shut down with anxiety, and some pushed back against me. None of it was offensive (they were genuinely good-hearted and emotionally mature people taking ownership of their own responses), but I could sense the work they needed to do in order to step forward into their own leadership.
I assigned this work not because I wanted the easy way out (ie. a day of no teaching), but because I knew that they would leave the retreat with more skills if they practiced what they were learning in a safe and supportive environment. And I knew, from personal experience, that working through their discomfort would be good for them in the end.
At the beginning of all of my retreats, I introduce participants to the concept of “brave space”. “While we will work together to make this space safe for everyone,” I say, “I prefer to talk about ‘brave spaces’ rather than safe ones. Sometimes, when we focus on safety, we’re actually focusing on comfort, and we don’t take risks or face challenges with bravery. While you are here, I want to encourage you to be brave, to have conversations that challenge you, to face the shadow in yourself when it shows up, to look after yourself in radical ways, and to dare to re-engage even when things get difficult.” (Note: click on the link above to learn more about where this concept emerged.)
I follow that up by saying “this is also a consent-based environment. While I will encourage your bravery, and may nudge you past comfort, I also promise to accept ‘no’ as an answer. You alone know what you can handle and I invite you to take responsibility for where your boundaries need to be and what you’re not willing to consent to.”
Thirdly, I say (in the words of my teacher, Christina Baldwin) that “in this space, we ask for what we need and offer what we can. That means we are each invited to honour our own needs, look after ourselves, and respond as well as we can to other people’s needs. We will practice reciprocity, step into our personal leadership, honour boundaries, and do our best to make this space both brave and safe for all of us.”
When I assigned the participants at this retreat the task of hosting a 45 minute segment of our Saturday, I encouraged them to step into brave space. “This is your chance to push past your comfort zone, to try something that might feel too risky at home where you’re surrounded by people who know you. In this environment, where people are committed to holding space for each other, dare to push through your discomfort to find your bravery.”
When Saturday arrived, the air was charged with a mixture of anticipation, excitement and fear. I knew it would be good, but of course I also had moments of doubt, wondering whether it might backfire. Would people hate it and hate me and leave the retreat with a bad taste in their mouths? Would we have enough energy to support nine people’s individual steps into courage? Would it be repetitive if too many sessions were similar? Would those with anxiety simply shut down and not be able to participate? How would I support them if they did?
You can probably guess how it all played out. The day was brilliant. People were courageous and supportive and creative and inspiring. We had nine very different sessions, each one of them keeping us engaged and inspired. We made art, we learned movement practice, we had an honest conversation about creating more inclusive space in women’s circles, we learned a beautiful Maori greeting (hongi), we practiced mindfulness, and we played. It was one of the best days I’ve had in a long time.
On Sunday morning, after the last session, I invited everyone to participate in a ritual to mark what had transpired. On a piece of paper, each person wrote down what they wanted to honour themselves for and what commitment they wanted to make to themselves for the future. They then carried the piece of paper into the labyrinth, and placed it on a cairn of stones at the centre. When they emerged from the labyrinth, I offered each one a personal blessing, reflecting on something I’d witnessed in them during the week, and then, if they chose, they could step over a line on the ground that marked the crossing of a threshold into whatever would come next.
Standing at the edge of the labyrinth was a beautiful experience. There was energy and excitement mixed with contemplation and some fear. There was commitment and resolve and courage and fierceness. There were tears and there was laughter. There was humanity and humility and hope. That labyrinth served as the container for the complexity of all human emotions, while I “held the rim”.
Rhonda, one of the retreat participants, later said this of the labyrinth experience… “I realized at that moment, at the center of the labyrinth, everything that I had always sought, chased, pursued, agonized to find and discover in my own life and purpose was already within. I just need to accept it. I felt God look at me with the biggest smile and say ‘It’s about time.’ It was a most defining moment. I feel like I am no longer living ‘from’ my history.”
Later that day, it was time for us all to depart. As I looked around the circle of women, I couldn’t help but notice the difference from just a few days earlier. These were courageous, strong women who were now a little more aware of their own courage and strength. They had worked through their discomfort, trusted each other to hold space for their fear, and emerged triumphant.
The good-byes from that retreat were different from what they often are at retreats. People were ready to go home. They were ready and excited to step into what was next. Unlike what often happens at the end of retreats, they didn’t seem to have the need to cling to the comfort and warmth of the circle that had held them. Though they valued the support of the group, they stepped away with a sense of self-reliance.
They had come as learners and they were leaving as leaders.
They had chosen not to let their discomfort keep them from finding their courage. I can hardly wait to see what they are capable of!
Today, while I consider what to do with the discomfort I faced a couple of days ago, I make a new resolve to step into courage because I have the memory of those women to inspire me.
Sign up for my six month Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program to learn more about what it means to hold space.
Seven years ago, sixteen women gathered at the edge of a lake in Ontario to learn The Circle Way with Christina Baldwin. I was one of those women, having longed for this opportunity for ten years, since I’d first read Calling the Circle: The First and Future Culture.
As is almost always the case when like-hearted women gather, our conversations quickly took us into deep and reverent places. It was the kind of nourishment I needed in that middle place I was in at the time – at the threshold of leaving full-time employment and launching my new business.
Punctuated throughout our circle time that weekend were the sounds of gunshots from across the lake – geese hunters, we presumed. The harshness of the sound (and what we assumed was the result) was in sharp contrast to the gentleness of our circle.
It dawned on us how symbolic this was… on one side of the lake was the softness of feminine energy, while on the other side was the aggression of masculine energy. The two were at odds and neither knew how to integrate with the other.
I went for a long walk one afternoon, and though the woods were quiet and peaceful where I walked, the ongoing gunshots reverberating across the water troubled me. Somewhere in the woods, I had the thought… “I really want to row out to an island at the centre of the lake, to meet the masculine there. I want to be a bridge-builder, a healer of this divide.” At the end of that walk, before returning to the retreat centre, I was surprised to find a weathered old sign pointing back in the direction I’d come. There was one word on the sign – Lifeline. I couldn’t help but think it was meant for me.
What I didn’t fully understand at the time was that the healing work I wanted to do at the centre of the lake was not only about healing relationships between other people, it was about healing the relationship between the feminine and masculine within myself (and how I related to the masculine in others).
Perhaps it was because of that personal divide that, for the next several years, my work focused primarily on women. I gathered women together in retreats, created resources for them, and wrote articles for them. It felt good and right, and yet… I kept feeling like something was missing. I couldn’t forget the vision of the island at the centre of the lake.
Gradually, I began to incorporate more men into my circles, but it wasn’t always easy. Sometimes those men brought too much of the unhealed masculine into the space, dominating the conversation and interrupting without self-awareness. And sometimes the women silenced themselves or became awkward when the men entered the space. And sometimes my own social conditioning came into play, and I deferred to male voices instead of holding them accountable.
And yet, despite the challenge, I knew that this was important work and that I couldn’t back away from it. So I worked on healing myself so that I could offer healing to others.
Last week, I flew to Germany to participate in a global gathering of practitioners of The Circle Way. I wasn’t sure why I felt so strongly that I needed to be there, but I kept hearing the nudges, and so I decided to follow them.
I didn’t know then that the gathering would represent some of the healing I’d wanted to find on that island in the centre of the lake.
Near the beginning of the gathering, on a beautiful piece of land in the Eifel forest region of Germany, we were invited to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony, a tradition that had been passed down to the owner of the land from his teacher, a Lakota elder. For personal reasons, I did not participate in the ceremony, choosing instead to sit at the fire and watch the fire-keeper feed hot stones into the lodges.
There was a binary nature to the ceremony that was troublesome for some in our midst (including myself). Men sat in one lodge and women in another and there was no space for those who fit within the non-binary space in between. In addition, the women in their moon time were not allowed into the lodge (in keeping with Lakota tradition) and though they were told they shouldn’t enter because they are particularly powerful at that time of the month, they didn’t feel very powerful, sitting at a separate fire at the edge of the ceremonial area. A man lead the ceremony (even entering the women’s lodge at the beginning to offer teachings and songs) and a man served as fire-keeper.
In the sharing circle the next morning, a few people mentioned their discomfort with the ceremony and the way it divided us and excluded some. Nothing was resolved in that conversation, but some of us continued to have conversations on the sidelines.
Though the ceremony challenged us, I think it was a valuable place for us to start because it offered us a base from which to grow. When we turned away from the ceremony and toward other things, something began to shift, helping us evolve out of the patriarchy-imposed binary and into the space in between.
There were playful moments when it seemed the trickster was in our midst, messing with what had divided, excluded, and wounded most of us throughout our lives. Once, in the middle of a long afternoon of conversation, when we’d settled back into the circle after a break, a platter of cake was brought into the room by two people who’d gone to the kitchen to get us a treat. Instead of what we might have expected, it was men who brought the food and served us one-by-one. At another moment, when women gathered in a small circle to talk about their wombs and what they carried, an open-hearted man joined in. And then there were the two people who slept in tents at the edge of the property (while everyone else slept in comfortable beds) like warriors guarding the village. Those two people (myself included) were women. And then, in the only session when we weren’t in circle and there was a more visible hierarchy (with people at tables and the hosts standing), all four leaders were women.
There were personal things happening as well. One of my favourite conversations, that stretched from supper until midnight, was with two men (one of whom kept getting up to serve me every time my glass was empty). We shared vulnerable and authentic parts of ourselves, and at no point did it feel that our gender differences created any awkwardness or disconnection. Each of us was able to hold space for the others in ways that crossed both gender and language barriers (for both of them, English is a second language).
By the end of our time together, it was my impression (which was confirmed by others in the group) that we had arrived at a place of much more gender fluidity, playfulness, and possibility. If a new ceremony had emerged at the end of our gathering, I’m convinced it would have looked quite different from what we began with. Our time together changed us. Together we were learning to integrate our own masculine with our own feminine and dancing with others who were doing the same.
On my flight home, I realized that my dream of an island at the centre of the lake was beginning to come true, and there were others willing to meet me there, willing to heal the wounds of the patriarchy, and willing to dance in the space in between.
Somewhere over the ocean, I started to dream of something more specific than just a mystical island. I started to imagine a gathering of people who want to dance in the space in between. It wouldn’t just be about gender – it would be an intersectional gathering, where all of our parts (gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, ability, etc.) are brought forward in the dance. It would be a place where we could have both hard conversations and playful ones – where we can challenge each other with words, but then engage each other more playfully with art and dance and music. It would be a place where we would share food and be held by the land in a way that would help us imagine the community we once dreamed was possible – where the patriarchy no longer destroys our connections with each other or with ourselves.
It would be a place where the circle would remind us that there is a “leader in every chair” and that differences are not threats when we can look each other in the eyes and listen with deep attention.
I am imagining a learning village that uses Open Space Technology so that the agenda is not fixed in advance but rather there is an invitation to enter the flow of what we could co-create as a village. Anyone could bring an idea and invite others to play and/or wrestle with it. Anyone could call a circle, start a piece of collaborative art, or invite us to dance. All gifts and questions would be welcome.
Perhaps this dream will grow into a living thing in the year ahead. I am open to the possibility. And I am open to whoever wishes to step forward and help me dream it into reality.
P.S. If you want to meet me “in the space in between”, consider joining me at one of my upcoming retreats…
1. Holding Space for Yourself, Oct. 12-15 at Welcome to the BIG House, Queensland, Australia. (Special pricing until Oct. 1)
2. Holding Space for Others, Oct. 18-22 at Welcome to the BIG House, Queensland, Australia. (Special pricing until Oct. 1)
3. Space for an Open Heart, Oct. 27-29 at Kawai Purapura, Auckland, New Zealand.
NOTE: If you are interested in the next offering of Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program, which starts January 2018, you may wish to put your name on the waiting list as it may sell out quickly. If you want to be notified when registration opens (next week) send an email to heather at heatherplett dot com with the following in the subject line: “Put me on the list for advance notification for the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program.”
“It’s a long and rugged road
and we don’t now where it’s headed
But we know it’s going to get us where we’re going
And when we find what we’re looking for
we’ll drop these bags and search no more
‘Cuz it’s going to feel like heaven when we’re home
It’s going to feel like heaven when we’re home.”
– From the song Heaven When We’re Home, by the Wailin’ Jennys
Last week, I found home in Florida, and, like the song says, it felt like heaven.
No, I’m not planning to move there any time soon (I’m not sure this Canadian girl could handle the humidity), but I found home nonetheless.
That home was in front of 175 people teaching a workshop on Holding Space through Grief and Trauma (see above photo). I taught the whole workshop, from 9 to 3:30, without any notes (other than my Powerpoint slides) – because this is my home. This is my work. This is the lifeblood that runs through my veins. The next day I taught two half-day workshops on The Circle Way and it was the same.
I know this material and these stories so well, have spoken and written about them so many times, that notes are no longer necessary. I can stand in front of 175 strangers and feel energized and a little nervous but still perfectly at home.
Some people call it a divine assignment, some people call it a calling, some call it your life’s purpose. In some Indigenous cultures, it’s referred to as your “original medicine” – the unique gift that you and only you can offer toward the healing of the world.
Whatever you call it, when you find it, you feel like you have finally come home.
Here’s what I know about finding it:
- Home is a lot more beautiful when you’ve taken a journey away from it. I spent many years doing work that didn’t feel like home, but that was all part of the quest that helped me find it. The more work I did that didn’t feel like “my work” the more clear I became about what I was looking for. A few days ago, I heard a chef on The Chef’s Table say that he’s known he’d be a chef since he was 14 years old. I’m intrigued by that kind of clarity, but that’s not the journey that was meant for me. There’s no way I could have imagined the work I do now when I was 14 – I had to take the long journey to get here.
- The quest for home will take you through “alien lands”. I couldn’t say it better than Parker Palmer does: “Most of us arrive at a sense of self and vocation only after a long journey through alien lands. But this journey bears no resemblance to the trouble-free ‘travel packages’ sold by the tourism industry. It is more akin to the ancient tradition of pilgrimage – “a transformative journey to a sacred centre” full of hardships, darkness, and peril.” There are many out there who are selling very tempting “trouble-free travel packages”, but what you’ll get from them is an empty shell of what you’re really meant to find in your life. Take the “road less traveled”. It’s risky, but it’s real.
- The path through the “darkness and peril” builds your resilience and helps you to eventually see the light. It was when I learned to surrender to the darkness and begin to see the purpose and meaning of it that I finally started to find the clarity I was seeking. I can only teach about topics like grief and trauma and the liminal space because I learned to navigate those worlds myself, and I could only learn to navigate them when I stopped resisting them. Wherever you are now, there is meaning in it and there are lessons to be learned from even the hardest moments.
- It all matters. Even those long years of doing work that didn’t feel connected to me mattered. I honed my communication skills writing speeches for politicians and government officials. I learned storytelling traveling to developing countries and telling the stories of the non-profit organization I worked for. I learned how to create enough content for a full day workshop when I was teaching courses in Writing for Public Relations at the university. It may not have been the content I wanted to speak or write about, but those were the skills I needed for what I now do.
- A true purpose includes generosity and responsibility toward others. If you live a self-absorbed life, you will be forever searching for the meaning of it. Look beyond yourself to find your purpose. “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how”. ― Viktor E. Frankl
- Many will never understand your quest or your purpose. Last week, crossing the border into the U.S., I was held up for an hour (and nearly refused entry), trying to explain my work to a confused border agent who couldn’t find an appropriate category in his big binder full of visa information. I get the same kind of confusion from lawyers, accountants, friends, family, etc. I used to think I just needed the right “elevator speech”, but no matter what I tried, there were always people who gave me confused looks. I gave up on the elevator speech and simply learned to accept that the work I’ve been called to doesn’t fit well with cocktail party small talk or border crossings.
- The right people will get it. It doesn’t take long to figure out whether a seat mate on the airplane, a participant at a workshop, or another parent on the soccer field is on a similar quest as I am on. If I speak words like “holding space” or “The Circle Way” and their eyes light up, I know we’ll be able to have a meaningful conversation. In Florida, those 175 people, who mostly support children in grief and trauma, stayed with me through every word. When that happens, it doesn’t really matter how many confused looks there were until that point.
- It will take a lot out of you and it will give a lot back. Whenever I finish doing work that really matters – like that workshop in Florida – I am both exhausted and invigorated. Though it flows with ease when I am doing the right work, it is far from easy. It’s true that I didn’t need notes up there, but that’s because I was sharing from such a deep and intimate place of my own stories of grief and trauma that notes are unnecessary. My heart was being poured out in front of 175 people. I do it out of pure love, but I know that this kind of work must be followed by a few days of rest and solitude.
- Desire is a guide even when you try to deny it. I had a lot of baggage around my desire to stand in front of a crowd of people speaking of things that were important to me. “It must be my pride that yearns for the spotlight,” I convinced myself. I needed to be more humble than that. I should be happy being in the background. But as much as I tried to deny it, it’s where I felt called to be and now, because I learned to silence those voices that told me I was wrong to want it, I can stand there and feel at home. “To have a desire in life literally means to keep your star in sight, to follow a glimmer, a beacon, a disappearing will-o’-the-wisp over the horizon into some place you cannot yet fully imagine. A deeply held desire is a star that is particularly your own, it might disappear for awhile, but when the skies clear we catch sight of it again and recognize the glimmer.” – David Whyte
- When you find it, it’s even better than you imagined it would be. I have had lots of discouraging days along this journey, lots of times when I thought I was deluding myself, and lots of times when I started looking for other work because it was all taking far too long. But now? I can hardly believe how lucky I am. I have moments of pure joy that are unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. Who knew that speaking on topics like grief and trauma could be so invigorating? Just as I surrendered to and learned from the darkness and the grief, I am surrendering to and learning from the light and the joy.
After the workshops were finished, I stayed in Florida a few extra days to spend some focused time creating the content for my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program, and once again, in my little Airbnb room close to the ocean, writing in solitude, I was home. Because my calling is not to stand in front of a room of hundreds – my calling is to teach, in whatever form it takes, this work that feeds my soul and invites me to feed other souls.
“I’m not a teacher: only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead – ahead of myself as well as you.” – George Bernard Shaw
I hope that you find it too – the place that calls you, the work that whispers to you in your quietest moments. I hope that your own long journey is worth it and that you relish the joy that and healing that can come when you find home.
* * * *
If you need some inspiration, here are a few books that inspired me along the way:
– Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation – by Parker Palmer
– Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity – by David Whyte
– Flow: The Psychology of Ultimate Experience – by Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi
– Man’s Search for Meaning – by Viktor E. Frankl
– Body of Work: Finding the Thread that Ties Your Story Together, by Pam Slim
– Making a Living Without a Job: Winning Ways for Creating Work you Love – by Barbara Winter
* * * *
One of my upcoming retreats might also help you find it:
1. Openhearted Writing Circle, June 11 – a day retreat in Winnipeg, Manitoba. There is still space available.
2. Nourish: A retreat for your body, mind, and spirit. Together with my friend and yoga teacher Joy, I’ll be co-hosting a holistic retreat in Manitoba, August 18-20.
3. Holding Space for Yourself, Oct. 12-15 at Welcome to the BIG House, Queensland, Australia
4. Holding Space for Others, Oct. 18-22 at Welcome to the BIG House, Queensland, Australia
5. Space for an Open Heart, Oct. 27-29 at Kawai Purapura, Auckland, New Zealand